Justice’s Book Recalls a Progressive High Court In an Age Of Conservatism In NC

By Amber Nimocks

With a gruesome murder at its core and a made-for-TV plotline, the 1988 case State v. Hennis provided a salacious backdrop for one of the N.C. Supreme Court’s most controversial decisions. It was, writes N.C. Supreme Court Justice Mark Davis in his recently published book, “one of the most hotly debated decisions ever issued by the Exum Court.”

A divided court ruled in Hennis that Army Master Sgt. Timothy Hennis, convicted of murder in the deaths of Kathryn Eastburn and two of her daughters in Fayetteville, had been deprived of a fair trial. Photographs of the scene and the bodies that the prosecutor showed the jury had prejudicial impact, the court ruled.

The case stands as an example of the willingness of the Exum Court to boldly enforce constitutional and procedural rights, one of the themes of Davis’ book, “A Warren Court of Our Own: The Exum Court and the Expansion of Individual Rights in North Carolina.”

Hennis is one of dozens of decisions Davis unpacks in the book’s 207 pages, as he takes a close look at how the state’s high court made a progressive name for itself while Jim Exum served as chief justice from 1986 to 1994 – a time when Ronald Reagan and George Bush occupied the White House, Jim Martin served as governor and Jesse Helms loomed large in national politics.

Members of the NCAJ, then known as the N.C. Academy of Trial Lawyers, figure throughout, including NCAJ Past President Gordon Widenhouse, a criminal defense attorney and former law clerk for Exum. Widenhouse described the Exum Court as “willing to say, ‘You know, the procedure matters. The statutory rights matter. The constitutional right matters. And it makes no difference how bad the person’s act is … they’re still entitled to the full panoply of protections that the statutes and constitution gives you.’ So, I think you see that with the Exum Court across the board.”

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